Bristolatino’s Sports editor Freddy Hare looks at why rugby in Latin America is growing in popularity – albeit slowly – and how the Olympics in Brazil could work in the sport’s favour.
Back in 2009, at an International Olympic Committee session in Copenhagen, it was decided that both men and women’s rugby would feature at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, albeit in the 7s format of the game. The last time rugby featured at the Olympics was back in 1924, where, based on the number of tickets sold, it was actually more popular than athletics.
One team has qualified so far: Brazil (as hosts). Rugby is growing slowly in this football-mad country, with an increasing number of players taking part and ambitions of qualifying for the World Cup within the next ten years (they are currently 34th in the world). Achieving that would be no mean feat for a country who currently only has 10,000 registered players, a stark contrast to the 2.5 million in England.
The only Latin American team really known on the world rugby stage is Brazil’s neighbour, Argentina, who have recently joined the Tri Nations teams of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa to form the Rugby Championship. Playing at such a high level will help the Argentine team Los Pumas hugely, much as it has Italy since they joined the Six Nations back in 2000, but it will also increase disparity between them and other rugby nations on the continent.
A history of the winners of the South American Rugby Championship makes for comical reading. Since its genesis in 1951, Argentina have won it every single year except in 1981, when they didn’t take part. Second and third place have, the majority of the time, been occupied by Uruguay and Chile respectively. However, there are now three divisions for this Championship, with Costa Rica winning the 2012 Division C title, offering further proof that rugby is slowly growing popular in Latin America.
I say ‘slowly’ because in a region where children are generally taught to kick a football before learning to speak, explaining the concept of running forwards but passing backwards leaves many a blank face staring back at you. Trust me, I speak from experience.
Another hindrance to rugby’s growth is the popularity of American football, a consequence of the hegemonic influence of the United States on Latin America. As a fan of the sport myself, I won’t belittle it with snide remarks about its ironic name or the fact that an average game only consists of 11 minutes of playing time. However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that American football has a much stronger following in Latin America than rugby does – Argentina aside.
Despite the popularity of American football, the growth of rugby has still been relatively steady in recent years in Latin America. More and more youngsters are making the previously frowned upon transition from football to rugby; many of the skills which children learn whilst playing football are applicable to rugby, and the sports culture is already within them. With an increasing number of European coaches heading to Central and South America and clubs sprouting out of nowhere, there is no doubt that the game will gather more followers, and the imminent Olympics in Brazil can only help.